Suspension: is it really necessary for mountain biking?

Convention now says that mountain bikes should have front suspension forks. They are now considered an essential feature, by nearly all mountain bikers and mountain bike manufacturers. Even the lowest end, cheapest of the cheap, steel-rimmed, gas-pipe framed mountain bikes in your nearest supermarket have something resembling front suspension.

And the benefits of decent front suspension are quite clear. They allow a rider to ride faster over most off-road terrain, give extra steering control due to the enhanced front wheel traction, and absorb vibrations that would otherwise sap a rider’s energy. In other words, front suspension allows a rider to go faster and for longer. Good suspension also provides an extra margin of error when you hit gnarly terrain features a little too fast – soaking up hits and giving you a better chance of staying on the bike.

Chili_Bomber4 vs. Kona Project 2 rigid fork

What has happened to our trails since the advent of good-quality, cost-effective, long travel suspension forks? Has mother nature added extra rocks, roots and bomb-holes to make our trails that much gnarlier? Have the laws of physics fundamentally changed to make it impossible to ride off-road on a rigid fork? No, of course not. Simply put, expectations have risen regarding the speed one can ride off road; riders usually want to keep up with their riding buddies, to win races, or get good Strava times.

So, having front suspension is a no-brainer then, right? Not necessarily, as it turns out. Suspension comes with several drawbacks:

  • adds weight to the bike
  • a fraction of the energy of each pedal stroke is lost compressing the suspension – unless locked out
  • slightly sloppier steering due to fork flexure, although the most recent forks are getting pretty stiff
  • head tube angle changes as the suspension progresses through its travel, changing the steering of the bike
  • modern suspension forks require regular maintenance, particularly when used in wet and muddy conditions
  • significantly increases the retail price of a mountain bike, or means the rest of the bike will be worse at the same price point

Most riders and manufacturers now agree that the positives that come with using front suspension outweigh the negatives. I agree with this, but only if your priority is to ride as hard and fast as possible.

While generally a little slower, riding rigid forks allows a mountain biker to burn calories faster than when riding with front suspension. Riding rigid also places a greater importance on trail skills, particularly the reading of terrain and selecting the fastest/smoothest line. This means a rider generally needs to become fitter and more skilled to keep pace with riding buddies who use front suspension.

In conclusion, there is probably no single answer to the original question: is suspension necessary? The answer will depend on individual taste, riding style, budgetary constraints, and the type of terrain being ridden.

My own view is that suspension is by no means necessary, but is not worth thinking about unless you’ve got the rest of your mountain bike kitted out with a decent frame and good components.

2 thoughts on “Suspension: is it really necessary for mountain biking?”

  1. Thanks for a timely post. I had so much fun exploring the fire roads and trails in the forest where I grew up on rigid mountain bikes in the 80’s and early ’90s. These bikes also turned out to be the best all-rounders imaginable. With slick 26″ tires and a rack it became possible to ride to school with all of my books and to hang with road bikes when riding for fun. After a pair of suspension bikes in the years since, I’m back to a rigid mountain bike with 60mm wide 26″ slicks and flared drop bars – the best of all worlds. I’m not the type to drive my bike to a trailhead, so for my preferred type of riding, multi-hour rides starting at my house with miles of of pavement to reach the trailheads, followed by long stretches on fire roads and trails with bits of singletrack here and there linking everything together, front suspension (and knobby tires, for that matter) are more of a hindrance than a help. Of course I’m slower on the rough downhills than my friends running front suspension with knobbies, but the rest of the time it’s no contest.

    1. Thanks for your comment! As you can probably tell, my own attitude to suspension is very similar, and I now only use suspension to be able to keep up with my riding buddies on rocky downhills. But I still much prefer the feel of riding rigid steel forks – better steering and non bobbing when I sprint out of the saddle. I also like being able to just grab the bike and go, without having to worry about whether I have suspension set up and serviced properly.

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